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Church Union was greeted with celebration and sadness

Neil Sims with daughter Jo in 1976. Photo courtesy of the Sims family

“THE UNITING Church burst onto the Australian political and ecumenical scene with renewed energy for presenting a relevant Christian message in the Australian context,” said ethicist and retired Uniting Church Minister Rev Dr Noel Preston.

While those who led the union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches were singing songs of praise in the streets of Sydney, not everyone shared the excitement or found the “uniting” experience positive.

Judith Dowrie from Sunnybank Hills recalled listening to two persuasive sermons – one for union and one against.

“We read all the information sent to us and attended a meeting,” she said.

“We voted in favour of union.  On the Sunday of our last Presbyterian service, I took my Sunday School class up into the church to hear the three-fold amen for the last time. The children saw I had tears in my eyes. I felt we had sold our birthright.”

Thirty years on Mrs Dowrie still longs for her Presbyterian roots. “Yet we voted to unite and must continue to work to make the marriage successful.”

Trinity Theological College Faculty member Rev Dr Neil Sims had been ordained four years prior to church union.

“The formation of the Uniting Church meant leaving behind some familiar Presbyterian ‘things’ but it meant much more than that,” Dr Sims said.

“On 21 June, I had friends and fellow-ministers in the Presbyterian Church in which I had been involved for all thirty years of my life. On 22 June, one-third of them were now members of a different denomination from me.

“There had been some painful times leading up to our ‘separation’.”

Dr Sims said the years around the formation of the Uniting Church were not easy.

“Along with the grief and hurt, there were new structures and new ways of doing things as well as new people to get to know and understand.”

Minister with the Pine Rivers Uniting Church Rev Barry Allen recalled the Drummoyne Methodists and the Drummoyne Presbyterians in NSW had been meeting together for Good Friday and Christmas Day services for a very long time.

“Good Friday was traditionally held in the Methodist Church with the Presbyterian Minister preaching and Christmas Day in the Presbyterian Church with the Methodist Minister preaching,” Mr Allen said.

“In early December of 1977 I contacted the Presbyterian Minister to work out the details for the next Christmas Day service only to be told that they would not be joining with the Uniting Congregation for any services.

“So union had its joys which brought some Christians closer together and pushed others further apart.”

Nev and Joyce Cole from St Lucia Uniting recalled three generations of their family enthusiastically taking part in the inaugural service at the Milton Tennis Courts on 22 June 1977.

“The children wore clothing of colours selected to display the new Uniting Church logo as they sat high on the western grandstand,” Mrs Cole said.

“We enthusiastically and wholeheartedly committed ourselves to life, work and worship within the Uniting Church.”

The Coles have since wrestled with many theological and cultural issues and the strong disagreements that have sometimes resulted in splits.

“It is certainly the ideal to have a union of Christ’s church, yet why are we left with feelings of disillusionment, sadness and disappointment?”

Marjorie Head from Gympie Uniting also remembered the bitterly cold night at the Milton Tennis Courts and the excitement in the air.

“Looking back thirty years later, I think it was this sense of expectation of something new about to happen that I remember most vividly,” she said.

“During the communion large crosses made of Lego were passed around, and everyone was invited to break off a piece, and take it home. I still have mine, a symbol of the unity that we all hoped for.

“I often wonder if that same sense of excitement is still there and whether that sense of hope has been fulfilled.”

Union celebrations occurred across the nation and throughout Queensland.

Minister’s wife Marie Woodley attended the gathering in the Assembly Hall of the Aspley High School on 22 June 1977.
“It was a cold night, but a very warm Spirit prevailed indeed!”

Supreme Court Judge and Uniting Church Lay Preacher the Honourable Justice Alan Demack was a member of the last General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia when it voted for union in 1974.

He recalls the elation when they were informed that the Presbyterian General Assembly which met in Melbourne at the same time had also voted for union.

“The elation quickly ended when we realised that there would be a significant number of Presbyterians who would not be part of the Uniting Church.”

Mr Demack said, “It would be a pity if we are tempted to concentrate too much on the inauguration of the UCA on 22 June 1977.”

He believes the ecumenical imperative calls for a response in 2007.

Jenny Noble from Taroom is another who experienced “ups and downs” with the Uniting Church.

She remembered being present at a meeting where the issue of buying the new Australian Hymn books was being discussed with great heat.

“Why did we need to waste good money on new hymn books, when these perfectly good Methodist ones would last for – oh another 10 years.”

Ms Noble thought it was a great undertaking to bring three denominations with all the varying thoughts and traditions together.

“In hindsight, [the leaders] must have been blessed with the Wisdom of Solomon.”

Photo : Neil Sims with daughter Jo in 1976. Photo courtesy of the Sims family